Mad science: Developers turn to science to build a better apocalypse

How real-life science impacted games like BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

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Mackenzie Van Camp is the kind of scientist alarmists worry might one day blow up the planet. "All the freakiest, weirdest stuff that quantum mechanics predicts, that's what I try to realize in the lab," she says.

Currently a lab fellow at the Charles Stark Draper Lab in Cambridge, Mass., Van Camp spends her days researching quantum sensors, which are highly precise devices made from clouds of atoms that might one day serve as guidance systems for submarines and rockets.

They also happen to utilize a field of theoretical physics that informed the narrative of Irrational Games' BioShock Infinite — for which Van Camp served as a consulting scientist. [Spoilers ahead. - Ed.]

"[The writers] could have just waved their hands and said, 'Magic!' but they didn't want to," she says. "Instead, they wanted a game grounded in real quantum mechanics, and not a second or third-hand understanding of it, either." Van Camp is one of an increasing number of scientists moonlighting in the game industry to help developers improve the scientific accuracy of their stories. Tackling everything from creature design to world-building, these advisors essentially act as mad scientists for hire, with the hope that more scientifically accurate games will create better, more immersive experiences for players.

"I get to get other people excited about all the freaky and weird stuff I really care about," adds Van Camp. "What scientist wouldn't think that was a massive amount of fun?"

The infinite sadness of the schizophrenic neutron

Two years ago, Irrational Games Creative Director Ken Levine approached Van Camp about educating his writing staff on the nuances of quantum mechanics. Although she'd never played the BioShock series, she readily agreed.

"Like all scientists, I have strong feelings about what makes good science fiction," she says. Van Camp visited Irrational's Boston-area offices twice to "play professor," although she is quick to clarify that "my job was never to do story or character stuff. My job was simply to help them get comfortable with physics."

For her first lecture, she gave the writing team a quick and dirty summary of the history of quantum mechanics. For her second, she stood in front of a whiteboard and fielded rapid-fire Q-and-A from the writing team. "They came in with a lot of ideas already, and I think they wanted to see which ones could realistically be massaged into a reasonable universe," she says.

One of the ideas that stuck included the many worlds theory, an idea first proposed by Hugh Everett in the 1950s which states that, for any possible decision or choice, the universe splits into multiple separate universes to accommodate any and all outcomes. This implies an infinite number of possible universes — a key part of BioShock Infinite's ending, in which Elizabeth reveals there are "a million-million worlds, all different, all similar."

Another hot topic was the concept of quantum superposition, the idea that particles can be in two places at once. Elizabeth and Booker can be said to be walking, talking quantum superpositions: The same two characters exist in this infinity of universes — in all their theoretically possible states — until you, an outside observer, play the game. Your act of observation is what's "different" about the universe in which the game's events take place, and it is implied that this is what ultimately decides their fates.

Mackenzie Van Camp

Another concept BioShock Infinite's writers found tantalizing was that of the "schizophrenic" neutron, a theory first popularized in the 1990s by many worlds theorist Lev Vaidman.

Neutrons are particles usually found in an atom's nucleus, but free neutrons can be produced through nuclear fission and fusion in man-made nuclear reactors. "[Lev Vaidman] mused about what the neutron would feel like if it were to go along two different arms of a device at once. He described it as a sort of schizophrenia, this painful, disruptive thing," says Van Camp.

"There's this huge conversation now that the game has inspired about quantum mechanics and many worlds theory and all this other science. As a scientist, I was shocked."

So it goes for Booker and Comstock, who are in fact the same man in different timelines. When brought together into the same timeline, however, both experience memory loss, physical decay, even visual "glitching," like a corrupted data file. Essentially, Booker/Comstock is the schizophrenic neutron shoved through two arms of the same device at once.

However, as much scientific theory made it into the game, says Van Camp, even more didn't make the cut. "Yet there's this huge conversation now that the game has inspired about quantum mechanics and many worlds theory and all this other science. As a scientist, I was shocked — and, of course, very, very happy."

"The detail is what makes it cool"

Not every developer thinks scientific realism is worth bothering with, however. For example, Naughty Dog waves away the exact details of the fungal plague that destroyed humanity in The Last of Us. In Bethesda's Fallout 3, much of world remains barren of life, even though in the 200 years since the nuclear apocalypse, topside ecosystems inevitably would have recovered. And, while Valve's Portal is sometimes used to teach science, the Portal gun itself remains the stuff of engineering fantasy. That is, in many cases, developers decide beforehand the story they'd like to tell; scientific accuracy just gets in the way of the fun.

That's fine, until the lack of good science begins to hurt the game's narrative, says neuroscientist Will Rosellini.

"Gamers are getting older, and they expect smarter games," says the Dallas, Texas-based CEO of MicroTransponder Inc. "What worked for them when they were 16 will just make them roll their eyes at 40."

Rosellini was the consulting scientist for Eidos' Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the latest in a series of games known for exploring the relationship between man and machine via the use of augmentation technologies, like with neural implants or prosthetics.

His contributions to the game include everything from "neuropozyne," aka Nu-Poz, the highly addictive drug that prevents rejection of neural implants, to the voice-activated kill switch that could disable a character's prosthetic limbs.

"All this could actually happen," he says. "It was my job to do the research and figure out the how."

Rosellini's particular obsession with "the how" is ultimately what led him away from his former career path: playing pro ball with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Will Rosellini

"I liked baseball, but what I really loved was the biomechanics of baseball," says the former pitcher. "Prepping a 6-foot-1-inch skeleton and musculature system to deliver a 95 mph fastball isn't just about physicality; there's a mental aspect, too. I was fascinated by that mind-body connection."

So he ditched the minors and went back to school. Rosellini earned six advanced degrees in 10 years, all centered on the growing field of "translational neurotechnology," or the science of implanting the same electronics that power your smartphone or TV into a human nervous system.

Currently he heads up the private research lab MicroTransponder Inc., which engineers therapeutic neural implants used to treat multiple afflictions, including tinnitus, stroke-induced motor dysfunction and chronic pain.

The same kinds of technologies appear in Deus Ex, where players can boost the protagonist's innate abilities to superhuman levels through the use of nanometer-sized robots called "nanites," which alter his physiology on a molecular and atomic level.

"When I played the first Deus Ex, I thought, 'This is the coolest game ever,'" says Rosellini.

But the science of its sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, left him cold. "They used a lot of 'black box' science and treated nanotechnology like magic, rather than something real."

Maral Tajerian

The game's roleplaying — for which the original Deus Ex was known — suffered as a result. "I felt like the limited realness of the environment also limited the choices available to the player. I mean, having big, bigger and biggest guns is not what the Deus Ex series is all about."

So when he heard that Eidos planned to revive the franchise for a third game, Human Revolution, he took matters into his own hands and emailed the developers cold, volunteering his time and professional expertise. "They thought I was crazy," he laughs.

Turns out Rosellini's offer came at an opportune moment. While much of Human Revolution's artistic direction had already been established, story-wise things were just starting to heat up.

After trading emails back and forth and a quick phone call, Eidos invited Rosellini onto the project. Over the next four years, he remotely put in 20-30 hours a month consulting with the game's writers, hammering out the technological framework that would underpin the final story.

Together with Mary DeMarle, Human Revolution's lead writer, Rosellini also wrote much of the text for the in-game collectible e-books, which feature snippets from in-universe scientific lectures and papers. In addition, he devised the game's technology timeline, based on where he thought the field of neural engineering might go in the not-too-distant future.

"We're developing products today that won't be approved by the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] until 2020. So Human Revolution is set just one more development cycle into the future," he says. "Sure, some stuff, like the electrostatic floating device, is pure fun. But most of it is based on a developmental timeline that's completely relevant."

Ultimately, says Rosellini, better science led to a better roleplaying game, because more realistic technology offered players more options for stealth and subterfuge than available in Invisible War. "You could choose to be nonviolent and get all the way through the game that way, or you could choose to be extremely violent," he says. "All this technology integration allowed you to have greater choice."

That respect given to the player's autonomy matters to today's older gaming demographic, he says. "Today's video gamers are adults. So writing plots at a children's level isn't going to work.

"Tom Clancy perfected this for novels," he adds. "You love Tom Clancy's books because of the detail he brings by being an expert. The detail is what makes it cool. As the video games industry gets more and more competitive, the detail is a good way for developers to distinguish themselves."

Since the game's release, Rosellini has taken on similar consulting partnerships with movie and TV producers. He's also working on another video game, though he's under strict orders not to share details.

His consulting work, however, is mostly for fun. "I'm not doing this as a way to make money," he says. "Mostly I just want to create a game I'd want to play. It's 100 percent selfish."

Making science playable

Video game consultant Maral Tajerian knows an awful lot about snail sex.

For her master's thesis, she studied the little creatures while they got freaky, modeling how their behaviors and brain functions changed under the influence of sexual arousal.

"My dad never really got it," she admits. These days, however Tajerian has traded mollusca mating habits for the business world, as one half of the husband-wife executive team behind Thwacke Consulting. Thwacke's goal is simple: Create a consortium of scientists that game developers can turn to for technical questions, no matter what the field. It's like a human Wikipedia, except with a lot more accuracy.

"If a developer wants to know about a certain drug that could alleviate pain when the player is shot, they can consult our pharmacologists," says Tajerian. "If they need a creature design, they can consult our evolutionary biologists. And so on."

In the year since its inception, Thwacke has grown from just Tajerian, co-founder Sebastian Alvarado and a handful of their buddies, to a vast network of more than 100 academics and research scientists. Their experts are located around the globe, including at Oxford, NASA, Stanford, McGill University and the U.S. Geological Survey.

"When we vet our consultants, we look first and foremost for good scientists. That means being active in our fields and in our scientific communities."

Consultants include neuroscientists, astrophysicists, geologists, nanotechnology engineers and marine biologists. Even Alvarado and Tajerian are practicing research scientists. Alvarado studies epigenetics (or the way your environment influences your genes), while Tajerian researches the science of pain, both at Stanford University in California.

"When we vet our consultants, we look first and foremost for good scientists. That means being active in our fields and in our scientific communities," says Alvarado.

Originally based in Montreal, Canada, Alvarado and Tajerian started Thwacke while they were still pursuing graduate degrees at McGill University. The urban location was ideal: Several major studios have Montreal branches, including Ubisoft, Eidos, EA and Warner Bros. In addition, more than two dozen indie game developers call the city home.

"We could literally walk from our labs to Eidos, Ubisoft, any of those places," says Tajerian.

They've since moved themselves to Stanford, Calif., though as a purely virtual company, Thwacke has no brick-and-mortar offices. Meetings mostly happen through Skype, and conversations fly fast and furious through email and online workspaces, though, says Alvarado, "we meet in person when we can."

The firm offers a range of scientific consulting services, from one-on-one consults to lab tours to educational seminars. "We also can produce our own science," adds Alvarado. "So if a client needs diagrams, photos, figures or calculations for their game, we can generate them just as we would if we were writing a paper for publication.

Thwacke's secret sauce, he says, is that every consultant has a background not just in science, but in video games. "We're gamers, all of us. We play games everyday. That goes a long way with our clients, because it means that not only are our ideas interesting, they're also playable."

Never mind the mutant hermit crab

As an example, Alvarado points to Thwacke's work on Outlast, the upcoming survival horror title from indie studio Red Barrels.

Given that the game takes place in an asylum for the criminally insane, Outlast's developers wanted to avoid enemies and environments that felt like what you might find in a typical zombie run-and-gun. So to guide development, Thwacke supplied real-world data on mental illness, as well as how humans experience negative emotions like fear and pain.

In particular, Thwacke's team developed a set of psychiatric profiles for the resident asylum patients. These profiles, based on the latest research, outlined typical mannerisms and body language for given mental conditions, which animators could in turn use to better tweak NPC animation. Some patients might maintain eye contact, for example, while others would avert their gazes. Some might shy away from the player, while others would behave more aggressively.

"Having information like this creates a personalized feel for the characters, so they don't behave like every other generic drone zombie," says Alvarado.

Thwacke pharmacologist and consultant Kevin Neibert also provided details about the sometimes-problematic history of mental asylums, as well as historical lab environments, protocol and procedures, all of which helped flesh out Outlast's backstory.

Sebastian Alvarado

"The more grounded it is, the more believable the world we're building will be," said Red Barrels co-founder Philippe Morin in a press release announcing the partnership.

To date, Thwacke's highest-profile client has been inXile, developer of Wasteland 2. Thwacke has had its hands in the game's scientific direction from the very early stages, collaborating with writers and artists on everything from environmental layouts to creature design.

"Having information like this creates a personalized feel for the characters, so they don't behave like every other generic drone zombie"

"We pitched our own concepts grounded in actual science, then they speculated off that, and we came back with more ideas, and so on. It's been a lot of back-and-forth," says Alvarado.

Because Wasteland 2 is still in development and the relationship ongoing, Alvarado can't talk much about Thwacke's contributions. But he was able to tease one thing: mutant hermit crabs.

Wasteland 2 is set in a post-apocalyptic, waterlogged urban landscape. "Not every type of organism can survive in that environment," explains Alvarado. "So we had to brainstorm intertidal species that could live in there."

Obviously, that meant giant hermit crabs.

"They have to be giant, of course, because if something's radioactive, then it just has to be bigger, right? You can still have fun with your science," he says.

The result: Radioactive hermit crabs so large that they can use cars or telephone booths for shells. "You'd see a car, not a crab. Until the car starts to move." He laughs. "And while that's a cool scientific idea, you're also reminding the player to be aware of their environment, you're teaching them to adapt to new surprises. That's science that's also playable."

Speaking of shelled creatures: Have any clients inquired yet about the finer points of snail sex? "Not yet," Tajerian admits.

"Maybe we can
make a difference"

Thwacke allows its consultants to indulge their inner mad scientist, says Alvarado. "It's nice because you're not allowed to speculate as much in the lab. You stick to your research program and your grant, no deviations. So consulting is a great outlet for that kind of creativity."

But it's not easy. Science fiction is a tough craft, made tougher by an increasing lack of scientific literacy in modern society.

"It takes a good scientist to imagine fictitious science," adds Tajerian.

"People don't think science is important because they don't understand it."

Each of the consultants we spoke to included science advocacy as a motivating force behind why they'd gotten involved in video game consulting.

"As scientists, maybe we don't do enough outreach, and it's one of the reasons our funding has taken such a hit," says Alvarado. "People don't think science is important because they don't understand it. But if we can get a generation of people interested, maybe they'll understand that we spend all those hours at the bench not because it's boring work that has to be done, but because it's genuinely cool stuff. Maybe we can make a difference."

Video games offer a unique opportunity to get people excited about science, adds Van Camp, "because you can actually interact with these tough concepts, whether it's a tweaking a plasma gun or pulling a tear in reality. You can get your hands dirty.

"Maybe sci-fi isn't always about conveying science with 100 percent accuracy, or even 5 percent," she continues. "But it is about sharing that joy that we as scientists feel. So many people feel so alienated from science, from how the technology they use every day works. So anything that gets people thinking about science and saying, 'Yeah, I can do this,' well, that's good in my book." Babykayak

Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone, Charlie Hall
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan